Richard Bushman has recently given a presentation on ‘Joseph Smith and the Routinization of Charisma’. One of Bushman’s arguments seems to be that Charisma was located in the office rather than the person. That these divine or supernatural powers were transferred to whoever held a particular office. Moreover, it was through this coupling of bureaucracy and charisma that Joseph led the early Church and through which it was transferred to Brigham Young. Yet, as the bureaucracy and membership grew it would seem that the ability of both members and leaders to draw upon or demonstrate this office-based charisma became more limited. Many Latter-day Saints will spend their whole lives never seeing a Prophet in person. Instead, therefore, my contention is that Mormon myths serve as a form of transferable Charisma. They become one of the mechanisms for demonstrating the type of office-based Charisma that Bushman observes.
I want to explore these myths using the office of Prophet/President. The centrality of his position hierarchically, the significant role he plays in the faith of many members of the Church and also the infrequency of contact with the general membership make this an apt example.
These myths come in many varieties. There are stories about the Holy of Holies, about paintings of the Saviour and about mantle experiences. Now all of these may well be true, in whole or in part, or they may be completely fabricated. I am not concerned with their truth claims, rather I think that what is essential in the dynamic of these stories is the way that they become transferable between Prophets.
It is possible to trace a number of these stories (or variants of them) through many leaders, especially prophets, of the Church. This does not add to their fallacious nature rather it serves to reinforce what Bushman noted, which is that the office is endowed with charismatic gifts and not the person. Therefore it is probable, even expected, that these charismatic gifts are manifest by diverse men who hold the same office.
For example, the ‘This is the Place’ myth is re-cycled in England regularly but in a context far removed from Utah. Instead this myth focuses on the construction of the Preston Temple. Simply stated, a number sites were discussed but one site had a number of people who always resisted building permission. Yet, President Hinckley had asked for a Temple to built in Preston and when he saw the different sites he said… Yes, you guessed it. Then, though there were problems, the Temple went ahead. I am sure other similar stories abound.
My point is this, the process of re-cycling and repeating these mythic stories is one mechanism for maintaining the dynamism of a charismatic office, specifically the Prophet, in a Church where the general membership is so far removed from the individual. This is not to say that miraculous things do not happen, but these stories play an important sociological role in reinforcing this key notion that is rooted so firmly to the earliest days of the Church. These Mormon myths serve as a form of transferable charisma for an otherwise distant office.